30 Years, 20 Passports: Untold Stories of Steve McCurry’s Photographic Life

Steve McCurry—Magnum
Steve McCurry—Magnum
Women gathering clover in Wadi Hadhramaut, near Shibam, Yemen, 1999

‘When I first arrived in Shibam, I was astonished – it is extraordinary. It perfectly illustrates what a unique place Yemen is in terms of architecture, environment and landscape.’ The sixteenth century buildings ‘look like mud skyscrapers rising out of the flat desert plain. The city is surrounded by mountain escarpments on the far horizons – it’s one of the most unusual, interesting landscapes in the world.’

“Flying low over Lake Bled, on assignment in Slovenia in February 1989, the pilot took the plane dangerously close to the water’s surface. The wheels caught and we went down, the propeller shattering as we hit the water. The plane flipped, and the fuselage began to sink in the icy lake. My seat belt was stuck, but an instinct for self-preservation kicked in and I was able to wrestle free. The pilot and I swam under the aircraft to the surface. My camera and bag are still 65 feet down.”

So begins Magnum photographer Steve McCurry’s latest book, Steve McCurry Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs (Phaidon). The book spans 30 years of McCurry’s career and includes fascinating ephemera from his travels: diary entries, photos of him at work and some of the 20-plus passports he’s gone through over the decades. McCurry survived the Slovenia plane crash, as well as armed robbers and bombings in Afghanistan, but what comes through in his images is wonder, rather than suffering. He manages to make the world seem enormous and quite small; exotic, and somehow familiar.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, McCurry was a wild child who preferred playing in the woods to studying. His first encounter with photography, at age 11, was through a LIFE magazine photo essay by Brian Brake on India’s monsoons.

Steve McCurry—Magnum Photos

Steve McCurry—Magnum Photos

Steve McCurry photographing in Nepal, 1983

“It just transported me to another world,” he told TIME. Inspired by photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, he knew he’d found his calling.

“My first good photograph was in Mexico City,” McCurry once told CNN. “There was a [homeless] man sleeping in front of a furniture store … below this brand-new sofa in the window. The juxtaposition was, I thought, a perfect kind of image. That’s what set me on my way to being a professional photographer.”

After graduating college, McCurry spent a few years at the Today’s Post in King of Prussia, Penn., shooting high school graduations and Kiwanis meetings, honing his skills — but he knew it wasn’t for him. He left for India in 1978, intending to stay for three months. He stayed for two years.

“India was like another planet to me,” he told CNN. “I’ve been back 80 or 90 times … and there’s still many places I haven’t seen.”

A year into his time abroad, he met Afghan refugees who told him about the brewing mujahedeen resistance to the violent pro-Russian government. He agreed to document their plight; they disguised him in traditional dress and brought him into the country illegally.

“My possessions included a plastic cup, a Swiss Army knife, two camera bodies, four lenses, a bag of film and a few packets of airline peanuts,” he recalls. The conflict — and McCurry’s professional profile — escalated dramatically when the Soviets launched a full-scale invasion. Their jets were flying “so low and close they would fill my lens,” McCurry writes. “We just prayed they wouldn’t see us and start strafing.”

Steve McCurry—Magnum Photos

Steve McCurry—Magnum Photos

Portraits of Steve McCurry taken in a local photo studio in Kabul, Afghanistan, 2006

As dramatic as his adventures have been, McCurry has always focused on the human cost of war, rather than conflict itself. It’s important, he says, to maintain a rigorous detachment in the face of suffering in order to do the job—and it also probably helps that he isn’t married and doesn’t have kids.

McCurry’s detachment, however, is hardly a form of callousness.

“People, wherever they are in the world, want to be respected and loved. If you respect people, doors open,” McCurry told Al Jazeera. Another key lesson is patience. He researches a place before picking up the camera, visiting five to ten villages in a given country before focusing on the most interesting one. He also rarely works alone. “I can’t stress how important it is to work with a trusted assistant or guide. That person really has your life in his hands, and he can make or break your story.”

Not all of McCurry’s work carries him into war zones. Pirelli, the Italian tire company, commissioned McCurry to shoot its 2013 calendar in Rio. Most fashion photographers shoot nude female models for these corporate calendars. McCurry’s models not only wore clothes, but he selected women associated with humanitarian causes. Commissions like this, he says, allow him to make strong work without compromising his vision.

“There’s a meditative aspect to it,” McCurry told Art Space. “When I’m walking around photographing, I get into a particular mindset where I become much more attuned to the world around me. It’s a joy to be alive, and maybe that’s what come through.”


Steve McCurry has been a photojournalist for over 30 years. He is the recipient of the Robert Capa Gold Medal, the National Press Photographers Award and four first prize awards in the World Press Photo contest. Steve McCurry Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs will be published by Phaidon in September 2013. 

Myles Little is an associate photo editor at TIME.


Related Topics: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Latest Posts

2014.  Gaza.  Palestine.  Schoolchildren head to class at the Sobhi Abu Karsh School in the Shujai'iya neighborhood. Operation Protective Edge lasted from 8 July 2014 – 26 August 2014, killing 2,189 Palestinians of which 1,486 are believed to be civilians. 66 Israeli soldiers and 6 civilians were killed.  It's estimated that 4,564 rockets were fired at Israel by Palestinian militants.

Inside Gaza with Photographer Peter van Agtmael

What photographer Peter van Agtmael encountered in Gaza changed the way he worked.

Read More
WASTELAND PERMITTED USE: This image may be downloaded or is otherwise provided at no charge for one-time use for coverage or promotion of National Geographic magazine dated December 2014 and exclusively in conjunction thereof.  No copying, distribution or archiving permitted.  Sublicensing, sale or resale is prohibited.     REQUIRED CREDIT AND CAPTION: All image uses must bear the copyright notice and be properly credited to the relevant photographer, as shown in this metadata, and must be accompanied by a caption, which makes reference to NGM.  Any uses in which the image appears without proper copyright notice, photographer credit and a caption referencing NGM are subject to paid licensing.        Mandatory usage requirements: (Please note: you may select 5 branded images for online use and 3 images for print/unbranded)1. Include mandatory photo credit with each image2. Show the December cover of National Geographic somewhere in the post (credit: National Geographic) unless using only one image3. Provide a prominent link to: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/12/superfund/voosen-textat the top of your piece, ahead of the photos 4. Mention that the images are from "the December issue of National Geographic magazine” GOWANUS CANALNew York, New YorkPollutants: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, lead, copperYear listed: 2010Carved from a tidal estuary 160 years ago, the Gowanus Canal is Brooklyn’s industrial artery—and a deeply polluted waterway. Even so, it’s frequented by herons, seagulls, crabs, and canoeists. Defying local fears of economic stigma, the EPA listed the canal as a Superfund site in 2010. It hopes to start dredging contaminated mud in 2016.

Photojournalism Daily: Nov. 24, 2014

Mideast Israel Palestinians

The Best Pictures of the Week: Nov. 14 – Nov. 21

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,266 other followers